Jeanne Gang, founder of Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects, spoke on Tuesday to a packed house at the Northwestern University Law School Auditorium as part of the 2011 Chicago Humanities Festival. To tie into this year’s festival theme of “Tech Knowledge,” Gang discussed the importance of sustainable technologies and green design in architecture.
Studio Gang works to integrate man-made structures more symbiotically into the natural environment. This effort is particularly important in the urban context, where growing and sprawling human development threaten the well-being and, often, the very existence of local species. With a holistic picture of the environment in mind, Gang’s firm designs spaces to be compact, livable, and biodiverse. In seeking to touch on those questions which “lie locally and resound globally,” the architect highlighted several projects that are changing the way architects and designers address the environments and ecosystems in which they are working.
One such project was the Lincoln Park South Pond Nature Walk. Before Studio Gang’s revitalization of the area, South Pond was a shallow, polluted, and largely uninhabitable drain on Chicago’s drinking water. The Gang architects sought to redesign the space to be both aesthetically beautiful to attract human visitors and ecologically vibrant to attract migrating birds and other native fauna. The pond itself was restructured to be deeper, allowing fish to survive the winter. Also, the water for the pond was sourced from runoff, rather than the treated drinking water it had been consuming before. Diverse plant species were brought in to serve as natural filters for this runoff and provide a more verdant landscape. The firm even installed cladding on the underside of a pedestrian bridge to be used as swallow perches (though it has yet to be seen whether the swallows will discover and use these perches). By designing with both the artistic and the ecological in mind, Gang architects achieved a green haven for people, plants, and animals.
Gang also talked about her work on Aqua Tower, which many cite as the building that elevated her to starchitect status. In Chicago’s Lakeshore East development, the tower provides 86 stories of residential and commercial space. Outdoor space for occupants comes from private balconies that create the undulating appearance of the façade, a rooftop terrace and garden, and an adjacent public park. With the higher density brought by the tower and other mixed-use buildings in the fairly new Lakeshore East Development, the neighborhood is growing into a bustling, green gem in the heart of the city.
Though the work of city-builders like the architects and designers at Studio Gang is often lauded for being on the cutting-edge, Gang concluded her talk by emphasizing that part of being high-tech is knowing how to best incorporate some very low-tech ideas. Sometimes earthen bricks, which have been used since the dawn of building, are both an eco-friendly and beautiful solution. Some best-solutions to building problems have already been figured out by builders who did not have the luxury of materials sourced from every corner of the globe. By looking to the past with a creative eye, Gang is helping lead the way to an urban habitat that co-exists with the natural habitat.